I see Red! – By Gyula Vari

With the explosion of shark numbers increasing in recent years, for most of us targeting reef species, it is becoming more and more difficult to land that fish. Now I don’t know about you, but to me it seems that the sharks have a taste for anything that is red! They must share our tastebuds. But in all seriousness, is it the fact they are red and the shark’s home in on this? We may never know, but if I had a dollar for every red Emperor, coral trout, snapper, nannygai or red throat Emperor I have lost to sharks in recent years, I would probably be retired by now.

It seems all too common, with more and more photos circulating in the fishing world with half a fish or only the head brought over the side of the boat.

Sometimes they are so prolific, it is impossible to land a single fish, no wonder sharks are now referred to as the tax man.

Could the conditions be any better!

Could the conditions be any better!

The governments have classified some sharks as endangered, protected or on the endangered species list, which is all well and good. I am all for protecting our species and environment, however, I feel that these restrictions were a knee jerk reaction at that time, to combat the overfishing of some shark species a few decades ago. Now I am not here to go on a political rant, and to be honest, I am no expert and don’t know what the answer is, all I am saying is that the current regulations are not working. Simply, the more the sharks take our target species, the bigger dint we are putting in our fish stocks. For example, four snapper to me and eight snapper to the tax man!

Now that I have had my rant and feel better, let’s focus on targeting these prized reef fish and let me share my recent outing to the bunker group.

Red Emperor are arguably the most prized reef fish for most, they are excellent eating and are also a great sport fish. Pound for pound, they would have to be in the top three reef fish for sheer power.

Nannygai, coral trout and the red throat Emperor fall in the same category. Again, excellent table fish and great sport. Some may argue the red throat Emperor may not fall in the red fish category, but I have put them here in my head, as they have some red coloration, and they are my favourite eating fish of the lot.

Dan's red Emperor from thirteen metres.

Dan’s red Emperor from thirteen metres.

We target these fish generally with two types of rigs, running sinker straight to the hook, or a paternoster style rig. Keeping things simple on the reef is always a good consideration as generally, snags can’t be avoided. With the paternoster style rigs we pre make them for the trip, and recently tested the new SMM Reef rigs which worked a treat.

So, let’s get to the nitty gritty of our recent trip to the bunker group via 1770.

As with most trips when you are heading offshore, particularly for a three-day outing and heading out up to a hundred kilometres from shore, the weather plays the most critical part. As it did this trip, the forecast was great until the evening we pulled out of the driveway to head north from Brisbane, with some conflicting reports last minute, both Dan and I had concerns. But with everything prepped and loaded, we decided to go with the realisation that in a worst-case scenario, we would get to 1770 and must turn back home.

Fortunately, this wasn’t the case, and the weather gods were on our side for a change. We motored through the 1770 bar crossing, which was non-existent, and set the boat on a nice cruising speed of sixty kilometres per hour. This had us arriving at our first destination in about an hour and a half.

Just a quick note on the 1770 bar crossing, take care as the crossing is tide dependent. At low tide, parts of it are only a foot deep, so best to avoid at low tides.

Our first destination was east of Fitzroy reef, a couple of small, isolated pinnacles in sixty to seventy metres that generally hold big schools of red Emperor. On this day, they weren’t there, and after a couple of hours and only landing a couple of good-sized hussars, we motored further north.

The fishing continued very average to say the least for our first day, with no target species landed, only a couple of decent parrot fish, Maori cod and some more hussar. In short, our first day was a complete write off for Bunker Group standards.

One of the few trout on the SMM rigs and big baits.

One of the few trout on the SMM rigs and big baits.

We spent the night anchored in the Fitzroy lagoon, and the debate started that evening. Dan was a little annoyed to say the least, and conversation revolved around whether we call this our last trip to the Bunker Group, was it overfished? Had the sharks had that big of an impact over the years that the fish stocks were decimated? It was an interesting discussion, especially given the fact that earlier in the year we got onto the red Emperor but struggled to land a fish due to the sharks. The upside to this day was that we did not encounter any sharks, but we also had no red fish for the day. So, if we found the red fish tomorrow, would we find the sharks as well?

The next morning after breakfast, we steamed out of Fitzroy Lagoon again to be greeted by perfect weather conditions and headed north to an area East of Sykes reef. This area has some good ground in the sixty-to-eighty-meter mark.

The session didn’t start too well, again, missing our target species. We tried all our go-to rigs and baits, but all we managed was more parrot, tusk, cod and hussar. This resulted in heading further and further north with the result being pretty much the same. The weather, the current and every element for a great session was there, except the fish.

So far, a day and a half down with no target species hitting the deck, but on the positive side, all fish hooked ended up on the deck, and no sharks to combat!

With no red Emperor at our usual go-to spots, we made the call to fish one of our shallower water marks and salvage the trip with some coral trout and red throat Emperor and headed southwest.

On arriving in this area, and only ten to twenty metres deep, the sounder showed some great signs of big schools of fish.

We switched to slightly lighter gear and tackle, which is always a risk as these shallower waters can produce some big fish. But it’s a chance we took, as the hook up rate would be better.

On first drop down using an eight to ten kilo rod, spin reel loaded with thirty-pound line and a simple running sinker rig to the hook, I managed a nice sized red throat Emperor. These guys go hard on the lighter gear, are a heap of fun to catch and a tasty addition to the esky. Dan on the other side of the boat using similar gear also had a great red throat Emperor on the deck. Things were looking up. The red throat kept coming and after a few fish in the esky, we reset our drift line for a second drift, hoping for trout this time.

Dan with a PB Cod.

Dan with a PB Cod.

When I fish for trout, I will generally use larger baits, to give the trout a chance at the bait before the smaller fish pick the bait to bits.

The theory of the larger bait worked, and the eight to ten kilo rod loaded up in only thirteen metres of water, and it wasn’t long before I called it a red Emperor. In this shallower and crystal-clear water, you can get a visual and identify the fish very quickly. I put a lot more load on the rod and fish than what I would have liked, but the tax man was in the back of my mind. In this scenario, it’s a catch twenty-two, take it easy and risk losing the fish to the tax man, or, put more load on the fish and risk the hooks pulling or tackle failing. I took option two, which resulted in a nice red Emperor of around nine kilograms on the deck!

After a quick celebration and photos, it was Dan’s turn. Another red Emperor hooked and confirmed very quickly with a shark on its tail. Dan loaded the gear up and went for broke, which luckily ended up with the second red Emperor on board!

With a shark in the area, we reset our drift line moving away from our last drift. The fishing had absolutely fired up, with countless red throat Emperor being landed, along with tusk fish, cod and some hussar.

The bulk of the catch was red throat Emperor and saying that they were becoming a nuisance almost seems wrong to write.

The trout were still elusive. With enough fish in the esky, I switched back to heavier gear and started putting the new SMM Reef Rigs to the test. Dan followed suit and this resulted in the first trout coming aboard at sixty-eight centimetres! The trip was now complete with having achieved our target species, but we still had a couple of hours left to fish. We continued moving slightly away from our previous drift line. The next couple of hours resulted in some more red Emperor, trout and countless red throat Emperor. Dan had also landed his personal best cod. The overall tally was great for a four-hour session only having lost one red Emperor to a shark. We had salvaged the trip and importantly, avoided the sharks this trip! I believe this was due to the shallower water giving us the upper hand, with hooked fish spending less time in the water. I am looking forward to confirming my theory soon with another trip planned!